The Carter administration's national energy plan would serioulsy undercut the life-and-death struggle of rural America for economic survival and would speed the extinction of the small family farm.

That was the conclusion of several speakers yesterday at the opening session of the third National Conference on Rural America in which the economic and social malaise of the nation's heartland is undergoing scrutiny by 1,500 individuals involved in rural economic, health, housing and social welfare programs.

Carter's energy policy is inseparable from the development of nonrenewable resources, such as oil and natural gas, and would inevitably squeeze farmers in a continuous spiral of rising costs, said Barry Commoner, a leading ecologist and advocate of solar energy.

"The time has come, I believe, to recognize that the [energy plan], whether it emerges approximately intact or is reassembled from the contradictory scraps now before Congress, is the answer to the wrong question," said Commoner, director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University in St. Louis.

No matter which side wins the "political burlesque" in the House-Senate conference on energy, Commoner said, the farmer will lose.

Since 1973, he said, farm production cost have increased at an average annual rate of 11.3 per cent, led by 100 per cent cost increases in propane, 250 per cent rises in nitrogen fertilizer costs and 67 per cent costs in pesticides - all petroleum-based commodities. At the same time, the farmers' selling price has fallen "to the point of squeezing the grain farmer up against the inexorable rising costs of production."

Moreover, he said, the energy plan would worsen the energy industry's drain on the availability of capital, which would make it even harder for the American farmer to raise capital.

"In practical terms, if the national energy plan were adopted, farmers would find it harder to get loans as the banks' capital if grabbed up by the equally hard-pressed, but much more powerful utilities and coal companies," Commoner asserted.

"It is time, I believe, to start over again with the right question. When that is done, we will discover that the right answer is the farmer's oldest partner - the sun," Commoner said.

Renewable energy sources produced by the sun - such as grain that can be converted to ethyl alcohol and wood that can be used to manufacture methane gas - ultimately can help the farmer "escape from the economic tyranny which the industry has imposed on him," Commoner said.

A similar theme was advanced by Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.C.), who assailed the "exploitation" of the small farmer by the oil industry. grain traders, agribusiness conglomerates and the "duplicaity of the Commerce Department and the venality and stupidity of officials of the Department of Agriculture."

"The classic example energy policy, Abourezk singled out a drive to deregulate natural gas, which he said is "tantamount to an express train to economic oblivion for the American farmer and consumer."

He urged Carter to withdraw his support of the bill emerging from joint Energy Conference Committee, and substitute a plan reliant on renewable resources such as solar and wind power, bio-energy and conversion of alcohol to natural gas.

The conference, held at the Shoreham Americana, is sponsored by Rural America, a non-profit Washington based organization to promote the economic and social welfare or rural people.

Simultaneously, sessions are being held by the National Rural Housing Conference and the National Rural Health Conference.